Eclipsomania: 1932/2017

Eclipsomania is in full force for the eclipsical event  in western North Carolina in August this year.  As the total eclipse makes its way across the continental United States from Oregon to South Carolina, a band in western North Carolina and 13 other states qualifies for being in the zone of totality!

AC 8-28-32
The Asheville Citizen, August 31, 1932

A total solar eclipse— even a partial eclipse—is always a newsworthy event. In August of 1932 newspapers across the U.S. heralded the approach of a total eclipse, viewable in northern Canada and in the states of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. Though Asheville and the rest of the U.S. were outside of the zone of totality, it merited front page news in The Asheville Citizen. It was also mentioned south of us in The Greenville News —with this intriguing headline.

The Greenville News, August 31, 1932

I’m not entirely sure what the headline is referring to, but it does give one pause, doesn’t it?

I saw my first eclipse in March of my senior year at Enka High School in 1970. I remember seeing it, but not many of the specifics.  Mr. William A.V. Cecil, Sr. (The Biltmore Company) took photos of the event.

1970 eclipse.jpg
The Asheville Citizen-Times, March 8, 1970

Back in 1932, a young girl from Beaverdam witnessed that year’s eclipse and wrote about it ten-or-so years later in an unpublished manuscript discovered after her death in 2006. That young girl kept diaries, wrote poems and plays, and was a twelve-year-old student at Grace School in 1932.  Her name was Wilma Dykeman.

Wilma first day school 1930.jpg
Jerome Dykeman Scrapbook: First Day of School 1930.  D. H. Ramsey Library Special Collections,University of North Carolina at Asheville, Asheville, NC 28804

The following excerpt is from a 200-page manuscript written shortly after Dykeman’s graduation from Northwestern University in 1940.  UNC Press posthumously published the manuscript Family of Earth: A Southern Mountain Childhood  in 2016. I was reading the book last year shortly after the first announcement of the eclipse and came across this passage. I wouldn’t advise using the viewing aids that the schoolchildren put together for their eclipse viewing!

An eclipse of the sun is a great event for children. With me, it was an unbelievable phenomenon which puzzled me and brought up all sorts of disturbing questions. How far away was the sun, and how large was the sun compared to the earth. What happened when an eclipse came and how could anyone know when one was come? Oh yes, there are innumerable answers the mind can seek when it is really begun on a field of questioning. And nowhere can the mind be made to feel smaller or more insignificant than when it tries to comprehend the functioning of the planets.

August the thirty-first the year I was twelve was the eclipse I remember so well. Mother and Daddy explained to me what would happen, and yet somehow I did not believe that darkness could come right in the middle of the afternoon. Somehow, the mind can seem to grasp a fact and yet have no actual comprehension of that fact at all. They told me if I would find some smoked glasses I could look at the sun perhaps, and watch the whole thing just as it happened.

School had begun the last of August, and so I was in school that day. Will I ever forget the preparations we made so that we might see the eclipse. The boys made small fires and held broken pieces of glass, which they had found around the grounds, in the heavy smoke they made by piling wet leaves on top of the flames. The smoked both sides dark, holding the glass gingerly so that none of the black would smear off on their hands and ruin their chances for seeing the eclipse. Then someone started the rumor that old negatives from Kodak and camera snapshots were fine to use, and we rushed to the houses which stood near the school grounds, demanding from the irritated women who answered the door that they provide us with negatives. Some way, we did manage to get a handful, and these we carefully distributed among those friends who had done us favors in the past. With all the equipment we had scraped together, we were well prepared to watch anything that might happen.

At last the time came, and we all stood out in the schoolyard, the dust from the grounds billowing around our feet. Our glasses and negatives and hand-smoked pieces of glass were all focused on the sun. There we stood, a hundred or so of us, staring with wide eyes into the face of the sun, watching a phenomenon which took place out in the space beyond us. And we were young and eager and excited, and doubtless believe that the passage over the sun had been arranged for our own benefit, finding it incomprehensible that the earth might move without knowledge of us and that the planets beyond might exist without knowledge of the earth.

Slowly, the darkness came. It was not a total eclipse, but pretty near,” I wrote in my diary. And at the end, “That was about the only thing of much importance that happened today.” 

Posted by Terry Taylor, Friends of the North Carolina Room Board Member



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